Top Story: July 24, 2013

Dolphin Name Response

dolphins, names, signature whistles, marine mammal

By Molly Michelson

“Fa loves Pa.”

In Day of the Dolphin, George C. Scott teaches dolphins how to speak. They have names (Fa) and names for each other (Bea) and for their human companions (Pa). This cheesy 1973 Mike Nichols’ film is science fiction, but the movie did get two things right—dolphins do indeed have names for themselves and other dolphins in their pod.

Researchers in Scotland have been tracking dolphin name-calling (the nice kind, not the mean kind) over the past few years. Two previous studies determined that each dolphin has a signature whistle they use to introduce themselves to other dolphins, and that they can communicate with each other using these signature whistles. And the latest University of St. Andrews’ study demonstrates that dolphins respond to name-calling.

Stephanie King and Vincent Janik followed groups of wild dolphins and recorded the dolphins’ unique signature whistles. Think of the signature whistles as individual dolphin names. The scientists then took the recordings and altered them slightly with a computer, almost putting them in another “voice.” (NPR has a nice audio example of this.) When they played the altered recording back to the pod, the owner of that signature whistle (or name-holder) responded back with the same signature whistle, as if saying, “Yup, I’m here,” according to National Geographic. (Wired has an audio example of the call and response.)

Then the researchers delved deeper. They played back the signature whistle to the pod when that particular dolphin wasn’t there. The pod reacted, but without a response. The team then played back a signature whistle or name from a dolphin in a different pod. No reaction at all.

Showing that dolphins can be addressed in this way provided the missing link to demonstrate that signature whistles function as names.

“Our results present the first case of naming in mammals, providing a clear parallel between dolphin and human communication,” Janik says. “In experimental work, parrots are also good at learning novel sounds and using them to label objects. Some parrots may also use these skills in their own communication. Thus, both dolphins and parrots present interesting avenues of research for understanding labeling or naming in the animal kingdom.”

Their research is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image: Serguei S. Dukachev/Wikipedia

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